ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Rev. Lewis Stewart has been protesting in some form for around 60 years.
He was there in the crowd in 1963 for the March on Washington and he’s here now in Rochester still working on the group he helped to form in 2013, United Christian Leadership Ministry.
After a week of protests following the announcement of Daniel Prude’s death, Stewart sat down with Adam Chodak to talk about progress, protests and peace.
Adam: How are you doing with everything?
Rev. Lewis Stewart: I’m doing well with everything. I’m just concerned about the chaos in the city and we need to do something to get a grip on this. I’m concerned about things spiraling out of control, about our tentative political situation and I really do not want to allow forces that don’t really have the interests of this community at heart to sabotage it.
AC: What do you mean by forces?
LS: I’m talking about the November election coming up with Donald Trump and his law-and-order agenda, that’s my concern. And I think with protests, there is a value in them and they lift up the cause of righteousness and in this case highlighting the death of Mr. Prude and that he died at the hands of police, which he did do. And there’s some concern there, but at the same time, we need to look at getting people to turn out to vote and as long as there’s an element that’s causing disruption, they’re playing into the President’s hands.
AC: When I hear them talk about the generational divide in the Black community, what you’ve done, the words that have come out of the “elders” so to speak have been righteous and well-meant, but we want action now.
LS: And I think that’s the story of youth. I remember in ancient times when I was young and we all wanted action and we all wanted change not realizing that as a young person that it takes time to cross from A to Z and that you’re going to get these incremental successes along the way and you just don’t get it all at once … It’s not only young people, even people my age supported the fact that there needs to be more of an unsealing of what took place relative to Mr. Prude’s death, why that was not made public, why that was not made public for 55 to 6 months and needing justice and I mean everybody is behind that. People want to stop the killings and the mayhem by police reaction, there’s no doubt about it, we all want the same thing. We all have the same goal in mind, which is a non-racist society which is freedom. I think the issue comes in the tactics. I came up during the Civil Rights generation. That was a generational protest also, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the fact is when do you halt the protests and then come to the table to sit down and negotiate which might involve some compromise, but you’re going to negotiate anyway, I think that’s the issue. I think with our Black Lives Matter group here, I think these are great young people, these are laudable young people, they have a lot of passion, they have a lot of energy, but I think they have won. The issue has been won and what I mean by the issue has been won is that fact that they’ve highlighted the issue of what happened to Mr. Prude by members of the RPD, that’s been highlighted and the question is what do you we do now, so what we do now is we press for charges to be levied against them and their prosecution. I think the attorney general is already going to impanel a grand jury to look at this situation so that has been won. But there are two other things that need to be done, how do you transform our law enforcement, how do you re-envision law enforcement and I think the thing we see in this case and in the case of another gentleman, I think of Mr. Davis, who was tasered and killed several years ago who also had mental health issues and his death was also ruled a homicide by the coroner just as Mr. Prude’s case is how do we put more mental health professionals out on the streets and deal with this situation.
AC: You talk about incremental change. From the Civil Rights movement until now, have you noticed incremental change in policing and police-community relations in our area?
LS: The situation I see with police because I’ve been working on this for a long time, we meaning UCLM has had four community-police summits and in those summits we’ve had conversation, our guideline was Barack Obama’s 21st century task force on policing and there are several pillars about six in there and the only pillar we were able to address and get to for quite some time which is the first pillar which is building trust and legitimacy and the reason why is because the fact that the police were so entrenched in their particular perspectives relative to law enforcement and they always see things through the lens of law enforcement and not through the victims of police misconduct or repression in that sense. This was my whole issue that I felt was problematic with the police protection proposals that were espoused by the NYS Sheriff’s Association. Everything on the proposals were increases for felonies, this and that, which would have made an undo, harsh burden on communities of color. And so law enforcement really needs to perceive how their policies and how their procedures impact negatively people who are trying to deal with issues and who are trying to survive.
AC: So what improvements have you seen in the years leading up today?
LS: Well, I’ve seen number one that they were willing to sit at the table and dialogue with us because I think that’s the first step. Number two the mayor has signed a memorandum of understanding relative to created UCLM’s community justice advisory board and that community justice advisory board for us was to sit down with RPD on a quarterly basis or as often as possible to look at their utilization of body-worn cameras and not only their utilization, but also the policies behind them. What we found out was that some officers were deliberately not turning on their cameras so we asked Chief Singletary and former Chief Ciminelli, how are you dealing with this, are there any disciplinary measures that you are going to impose relative to police officers not turning on their cameras. So we had gotten to that point, however, my concern is here we are from March on sitting around the table discussing community-police relations and yet there were officers who were complicit in Mr. Prude’s death and we did not even know anything about it. And so we’re talking about transparency and accountability, but there was no transparency so in a sense there was a curtain that was dropped that the public could not penetrate and therefore for me it was hypocrisy so we can only go so far based upon their terms and I’m saying, well, this has to be a two-way street now. If we’re going to have accountability and transparency, then you must stop as law enforcement officers hiding things from the public and be open and honest about it so we can work through these things, it’s all about justice, but it’s not about you hiding the shenanigans or the dirt that’s going on in your police department.
AC: There are proposals out there to completely reform the police department perhaps even taking away officers who respond to normal calls with guns and things like that and maybe just having emergency units or mental health units that respond to very specific incidents. What’s your take on that?
LS: I think that’s a helpful and therapeutic move forward in terms of policy. I’ve known of several cases where when you get officers in those situations, they tend to escalate situations instead of deescalating. I think police officers are expected to be everything: social workers this and that and they’re not that. They’re supposed to be service protectors of the community. They’re supposed to be guardians and not warriors of the community. They’re not supposed to make things worse, they’re supposed to make things better. So we need more of what we call mental health professionals on the ground to deal with these situations. Now in some situations relative to domestic violence there is going to be at some point the need to call the police to intervene where you have some impending violence or where violence is, but in most of these situations where people where people are dealing with mental health issues I support the fact that we need more mental health practitioners doing that type of intervention and therapeutic work. In fact, that’s one of UCLM’s proposals that we have proposed to this commission on race.
AC:We’ve been talking about the Black Lives Matter perspective, but I hear from another crowd, police officers, saying they got into this to serve and the streets are very violent and there’s risk involved and significant risks and split-second decisions that can lead to poor outcomes. What’s your take on those who look at the protesters and say they’re not appreciating the officers and in their words their sacrifice?
LS: I think what the protesters are looking at, number one, are looking at on one side is the constant continued pattern of police abuse and misconduct which has been taking place for decades. A Black person at one point could ride through Irondequoit without being racially profiled, stopped for no reason at all, just merely because they were Black. And people see that. They see incidents like that with Breonna Taylor and Tamir Rice and others and George Floyd. You see the pattern of abuse. The one thing I’ve found out about cops is a lot of them they just don’t get it and they said they need training and that sort, but yet there’s that blue code of silence where the protect each other and reinforce each other, it becomes a bunker mentality and for them to really serve their community, they’re going to have to open up their minds, get rid of these bunker mentalities that they have and really look at what’s going on in the community. You see, one of the concerns I have without community summits is we did not get the opportunity to face off and dialogue with patrol officers. Regular people on the street, on the beat, that we needed to talk to to find out what was going on so that’s why we are proposing a couple things: a racial justice and education training curriculum at the police academy for all law enforcement agencies in Monroe County and hopefully the state because right now currently they have a curriculum that includes sexual harassment, diversity and implicit bias under one label and for new recruits coming in you only get 4 hours of that. Well, come on. Let’s expand that to 40-60 hours because if we’re really going to plumb the depths of police attitudes and how do we change things then we just can’t do it in a cursory curriculum that is about 4-hours long and that’s it and nobody is going to gain anything from that. The other thing that we are proposing is that we put in place a citizen’s public safety interview panel so that all those officers or let’s say pre-officers who are applying as applicants for the police academy and as police candidates be interviewed by citizens and the citizens would be trained in how they interview these candidates and further more the citizens would give a high recommendation or no recommendation as to whether they could be accepted as candidates to the police department and so that would some great innovative changes that UCLM is pushing for and that we want to see as part of a package of police reforms.
AC: You mention UCLM, it reminds me that religion has played a large role in your advocacy over the years.
LS: I come from a family of ministers. My father was a minister, my uncles and my cousins and my brothers, all ministers, but I really began to put it together when I went to seminary at Colgate here in the early 70s and Dr. King and ministers that were involved in the Civil Rights movement in seeing the connection between the biblical mandate to love mercy and love justice and walk humbly before thy God and that justice rings very true for me. So that in terms of our protest even during the Civil Rights movement and on and up. Not only was I involved in the Civil Rights movement, not only did I participate in the 1963 march on Washington, not only did I protest the Vietnam War and things of that sort, so I’ve been involved in matters of protests, in forms of protests, historically for decades. When Rev. Graves was alive he was president of United Church Ministry at that time and had taken on issues relative to community-police conflicts even back then. So faith, matters of religion and justice, have held a a very real importance and high value for me because of their inter-relationship between justice, freedom and the biblical mandate of the prophets in the Bible and in terms of the issues we’re confronting now in our community.
AC: I think a lot of people look at the current struggle and they don’t see a way out. Do you see it that way or do you see this eventually solving itself?
LS: I see it eventually solving itself, but through great struggle. No battle for freedom comes easy, it’s not a cakewalk. Sometimes as the great John Lewis said, it’s a lifetime of struggle and that’s what it is. But I look at where my ancestors came from, from slavery and boats, to sharecropping in that sense a form of feudalism, up to this present time, there has been progress, there has been progress, but now we have to look at the demographics of the city and how do we change these issues as far as entrenched poverty, income inequality, inadequate education, not having universal or affordable healthcare these are all the great issues of our times and this COVID-19 certainly has killed and made sick a lot of people, also in the Black and Brown communities so there are greater issues than just police-community relations but all of these issues are inter-related relative to systemic and institutional racism and the changes that must be done so that any kind of change it takes heart, it takes patience, it takes long suffering, but at the same time, it take great struggle and you must have the will and the heart to stick there and to not give up. I’m 74 years old my friend and I’ve been doing this a long time and because I can see down to the end of the road that if we keep on struggling and hang in there we can transform our community and we can certainly transform American society, but it’s going to depend on those of us who are soldiers in the struggle for justice and righteousness. And remember I cam a person who adheres to the principles of non-violence with Dr. King and Gandhi and only with non-violent principles can change be brought about.